Why can’t characters just be evil?

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In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort made to humanise evil. Through the rise of anti-hero stories, we seem to put violence on a pedestal, to worship the wicked and praise perversion… Or do we?

nearly got everything peaky blindersYes, there has been more and more of an interest in anti-heroes of late- but when we explore these topics, like in the spate of gangster stories we put on our screens, we still are fully aware that these characters are doing bad things. Indeed, it’s almost written into the formula- if the protagonist seems to be reluctant to engage in misdemeanours, the writers shake up their lives, throw them for a loop and *bam* they’re committing atrocities again. We know full well they’re the bad guy in the story- anti-heroes are just villains in the role of the hero after all- and we’re on board with that.

So does this mean we think evil doesn’t exist? Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s like I said, we’re conscious of this character’s role in the story. Indeed, I’ve often been disappointed by an anti-heroes that fail to do their job properly. Take the example of Maleficent. Now, I’ve got nothing against the film and I get it was made for kids, yet many will agree that it fell short of the mark- chiefly for failing to make the villainess truly malevolent. It’s very notable that the biggest change from Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty is that she doesn’t want to kill the girl here, only send her into a cursed sleep. And it was this reluctance by the writers for her to go fully dark that meant this unforgettable villain lost her menace and consequently michael corleone godfatherthat the message revolving round the impact of human cruelty was never properly realised. For me, it would have succeeded if it had got the Michael Corleone balancing act from the Godfather right- sure, make the protagonist  understandable, but don’t lose sight of the fact they’re the bad guy!

aslanThe fact we want them to fully realise that core of evil isn’t to provoke chaos in the real world– no, it’s to identify something far deeper than that. You see, there aren’t many “perfect” characters in the history of literature– well apart from lion Jesus 😉 . Even in the biblical tradition, particularly in the Old Testament, people make errors all the time. Why? Because if the cast of the Bible was littered with only perfect people, there would be nothing to aspire to and no mistakes to learn from. We are drawn to complexity. No character can be wholly good, just as no character can be entirely evil.

And this is why we love anti-heroes so much. It’s not because we reject the idea that evil exists. It’s because we get that we have a lot to learn. And sometimes you can learn things from the dark side- the clinical psychologist Dr Peterson often points out that we have to incorporate a little bit of our inner monster in order to succeed: 1) because it’s not heroic to be weak and 2) because we have to be in control of our inner luke skywalkermonster in order to overcome it. That’s why the hero is so often the person that mirrors the villain- they’re the one with the power to defeat the darkness, BUT like Luke Skywalker, they show restraint when it comes to the fight. A hero isn’t someone who’s never tempted- it’s someone who overcomes that temptation. Still- and here’s the kicker- how are we supposed to overcome that inner demon if we don’t understand it? That’s where anti-hero stories come in.

maleficentTo go back to Maleficent, it’s all about trying to puzzle out the causes of evil. Where there was scope in the original was that we didn’t know why the character was evil. While terrifying, Sleeping Beauty Maleficent was never fully developed in terms of what the hell were her motives anyway. Thus here’s the part of the new movie that worked- underneath all her awesome aesthetic, there had to be that pinprick of goodness or she’d continue to come across as a cartoon villain. And, of course, that’s fine- but I think most of us crave a little more complexity.

So I think the real reason a character can’t just be evil is that our hearts rebel against the notion. We barely believe in the Aslans of literature as it is (being lion-Jesus is a little unattainable 😉 ). In the same way a character can’t just be good, we need villains to have a little humanity to work. We’re all a little bit of both after all.

Well, my thoughts got a little rambly there, but what do you think? Where should the line between good and evil be in books? Let me know in the comments!

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What I Look For in a Villain!

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Hello again! I’m back with one of my favourite topics… BAD GUYS! Specifically what I look for in a villain. Now, if you’re expecting a list like: tall, dark, handsome, brooding… prepare to be disappointed. What I look for in a villain is slightly more complex than the surface level stuff. I’m not going to be addressing things like the paraphernalia, names, or aesthetics- that’s not what draws me in or makes my heartbeat quicken. No, I’m after something  a little more elusive, like…

peaky blindersA great plan– I love me a clever baddie. So whatever they’re planning to do can’t be easily undone by a teenager (usually one who can’t even figure out which love interest is more appealing to them, let alone save the world) doing something really simple (like pressing a big red button that says STOP EVIL GENIUS). Plus, whatever this dastardly plot is, it has to make sense. So they definitely have to have…

dr evil laughing.gifAppropriate motivation– this underpins whatever they’re trying to achieve and without a “good” goal, they’re never going to hit the target. None of that “so why do you want to destroy the world?” “Because!” When I was younger I read a lot of the Alex Rider books and could never quite understand why every. single. villain wanted to *blow everything up* just for shits and giggles. Otherwise they’re going to be textbook, moustache twirling villains. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some explosive individuals out there, yet a) they’re not always the most compelling villains and b) it has to make sense for this particular character (eg it won’t necessarily make sense for a billionaire, largely motivated by money and control, to set the world ablaze). This doesn’t mean that their backstory has to be a justification, but that it has to line up with what they want to achieve. Which leads me onto…

pondering pinky and the brainPsychology that makes sense– now I will say that I am in no way an expert when it comes to psychology- it’s just an interest I have. And I do think about the baddie’s motivating factors in relation to books like Baumeister’s Evil and like looking into interesting. This doesn’t mean that the bad guy’s dreams have to be overtly destructive- we’ve all heard the idea that the villain should be the hero of their own story-yet that doesn’t mean they have to be honest with themselves. I’m often drawn to theories that suggest evil people can have sinister goals buried deep in their psyche (there is an argument by Dr Peterson, for instance, that Hitler may have claimed to want to build a thousand year Reich, and yet every action he took led to catastrophic destruction- so what’s to say that when he was sitting in his bunker with all of Europe burning above him he hadn’t got *exactly* what he wanted deep down?). Regardless, if what’s going on inside the bad guy’s head doesn’t add up or seems totally illogical, then it’s very noticeable. Speaking of human monsters…

darth vader humanA human being… gone wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not adverse to *generic monstrous evil* all the time- however I’m never particularly drawn to it either. Manmade evil feels more authentic than the detached *evil force*. Seeing the villain as a *person* can make them feel more sinister, since we can see ourselves reflected back in their seductively relatable ways. And there’s nothing more terrifying than that.

i see you sauronOf course, they also must be SCARY! Without being a true threat, they can hardly be the driving force of the novel. And, unless it’s parody, people in the book have to be scared of what they’ll do. So that means they actually have to DO SOMETHING. Preferably something truly malicious…

alan rickman cut your heart out with a spoonBecause, yeah, I’m looking for someone NASTY. I’m really not someone who cares about what the baddie looks like- whether they’re ugly or stunning doesn’t matter to me- it’s what’s inside that counts. And what’s inside has to be *horrible*. Villains need plenty of flaws. Some of the best ones for a bad guy are resentment, arrogance and jealousy. Even if they’re appealing externally, they need to have some traits that are off-putting. That’s why liars work for me too- the best manipulators learn to hide their faults. This certainly helps to make them less than straightforward.

sad thanosIn fact, it’s brilliant if they have some *major doubts*. Or a soft side. Even if they’re perfectly malevolent, like Thanos, pitting children against each other to create the perfect murderers, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a good side and, you know, care.

 

I'll help you kiara and zira lion king 2This naturally lends itself to the possibility for REDEMPTION. Now, I’ll admit I can be a sucker for a well-told redemption arc. For me, the best stories have a hopeful side, with the chance for turning back always being on the table- that’s why I love Star Wars. At its core, the original story was always that good guys can go over to the dark side OR come back to the light. This doesn’t necessarily = forgiveness, mind. My major caveat in a story like this, especially when you have a genocidal maniac for a villain, like, say, Darth Vader, is that they don’t get to go off happily into the sunset at the end of it. Harsh as it is, they pretty much have to sign their death warrant when this type of story comes to an end.

choicesFor that sort of story to work, the evil character has to have some agency. One thing that bugs me about a lot of stories lately is the desire to take away the villain’s free will. For instance, spoilers abound particularly in Falling Kingdoms, Gaius taking a magic potion to be evil or in Throne of Glass where the king was possessed all along (though in Maas’ defence she makes possession work well for Dorian’s character). As horrible as it is, evil does exist and it’s nearly always a matter of free will. Some henchmen can have limited choices, but the driving force of the story has to have the power to make up their own mind.

harley quinnWhat can also work particularly well is if they’re chaotic and unpredictable. While not totally necessary, I do think it can be the greatest cause for a plot twist if the villain did something no one expected. Again, this comes back to them being vaguely competent as a villain and having an intimidating presence, but they should be able to outwit the hero at some point.

loki and thorAnother favourite is for them to have a personal relationship with the hero. To go back to the Marvel universe again (because they do this so well) what makes for an interesting adversary is if they are closely connected to the hero. So, Loki for Thor, Killgrave for Black Panther, Ultron for Iron Man etc. These villains work so well because they are practically handpicked for the good guy to overcome. Which brings me to…

harry vs voldemortHaving parallels with the heroI seem to go on about this every week now, cos it works so well, but having a similar backstory can work brilliantly. That’s why it’s so significant that Harry, Voldy and Snape’s all have tragic pasts- because they have to make different decisions. And that is the only thing that separates them from each other. It’s a powerful tool and works exceptionally well when it comes to forming a fantastic antagonist.

So that’s all for now! What do you think? Do you find any of these traits appealing? And what do you personally look for in a villain? Let me know in the comments!

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

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It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts (literally 4 months guys!) so some of you might have forgotten what they’re about or maybe they’re completely new to you. Basically, I love to chat about different writing styles and encourage people to view alternative styles as something that may appeal to different tastes (instead of seeing them as inherently “good” or “bad”). If you’d like to see more of my posts in this series, feel free to check these out:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

All that said, today’s post is going to be a little different. Because, given how prominent this technique is in certain genres, I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to get in some good recs for Halloween. So for a change, this post is going to (mostly) focus on creepy characters and unsettling reads. Tis the season for some spookiness, after all 😉

Unreliable Narrators Defined

the-odysseyUnreliable narrators are those that can’t (or won’t) tell story objectively. The term is a relatively new one, as it was coined by Booth in 1961, however the use of such a character actually extends back to the dawn of Western literature. The lord of lies himself, Odysseus, is a great example of a character whose overinflated ego causes him to exaggerate and expand upon his exploits. Little character flaws can be used to manipulate the narrative and distance the reader from the truth of the tale.

gone-girl-PBSince the evolution of the term, much work has been done in the literary criticism world to explore this technique. This is why unreliable narration works so well. Types of unreliable narrators have been classified by the likes of William Riggan ie in his work: Pícaros, madmen, naïfs, and clowns (Picaros = boasters, naifs = immature narratures). One way I like to divide it up is into the fault of the narrator and the narrator merely being a victim of circumstance. If we look at a book like Gone Girl, we have two unreliable narrators creating a toxic environment for themselves and consequently causing the drama in their lives (which becomes the plot). On the other end of the spectrum, there are narrators like Pi in The Life of Pi, who, through no fault of their own, experience a severely traumatic event and slant the narrative through that perspective.

stolenNow, for the most part, this centres on first person narration- though there are rare occasions when it could be used for second or third person. The best example of a second person narration where the story is told through an unreliable lens is Stolen, where the narrator addresses her kidnapper and it’s increasingly clear has some form of Stockholm syndrome. Otherwise, unreliable narrators can incorporate some second person to break the fourth wall, such as in Notes from the Underground. Unreliable third person narration is a little trickier to pull off- because the author really has to pull a fast one on their readership. a_monster_callsThis would be something like a twist akin to a Sixth Sense where spoiler alert Bruce Willis’ character is a ghost all along. I rarely see this sort of thing in books, but one example I’ve seen lately was in Safe Haven where, again spoiler alert, her friend was a ghost all along. This part of the book didn’t actually work so well for me, because frankly it felt like too much of a curveball. Yet arguably books like A Monster Calls, though more ambiguous in whether they’re unreliable or not, could be a more positive example of how third person unreliable narration in action.

Like I said, there’s been a lot of research into this area, so there’s more I could say on this definitions-wise, yet I think some of those subject fit more into the…

Pros:

(and what you’re here for- the examples! No spoilers except to say that there are unreliable narrators present)

EnglebyMost obviously, unreliable narration is perfect for creating bold plot twists. There’s a reason why it’s very popular in thrillers, for example. A favourite of mine will always be Engleby (a book that’s seriously underrated nowadays) where the clever characterisation of the main character drives the story forward.

 

name of the windOf course, one of the best things about unreliable narration is its power to create amazing characters. And not just the psychos of storyville, like Humbert Humbert. As previously mentioned, boasters also make up a huge number of unreliable narrators. Perfect for this time of year, I’d suggest the very atmospheric Name of the Wind. Kvothe, in my opinion, seems to warp some of the narrative to appear larger than life. Strong characterisation, in turn, is a powerful way to create voice.

woman in the windowIt can also be used to create another dimension to the story. This is exemplified in Woman in the Window, where it’s evident from the start that the main character has secrets and is slowly revealed through her backstory. We then come to see how parts of the narration were unreliable.

 

rebeccaStructurally, this also creates other sides to the story. Books with unreliable narration can often incorporate flashbacks for instance. Or unreliable clues might be given through suspicious characters in the story- such as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. This can create a fantastic Russian Doll effect of hiding clues within the story. Which leads me onto my main pro…

confessionsIt turns the reader into a detective. It can be brilliant fun trying to figure out where the truth lies and piecing together that oh, hang on a minute, this narrator has been taking me for a ride. Dodgy actions (it dawning on the reader that a character that commits murder isn’t to be trusted), unclear accounts (what’s not included can be a massive hint that something’s up) and the reactions of other characters can all help us figure this out (critic Nunning also explores the signs of unreliable narration in more depth). We can also find ourselves to be victims of a savagely dishonest narrator- which lends to a scary feel- such as in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or even Yellow Wallpaper. Yet, what’s great about both of those, is that we can’t be sure that in either of those everything we’ve been told was untrue. Which brings me to the fact that…

turn of the screw 2Unreliable narrators can create a sense of ambiguity. A lot of the time, we may be left wondering if they were reliable at all, and if they were, how unreliable were they? This can lead to a great deal of uncertainty- which lends to an uncanny feel and can be an excellent way to create mood. The Turn of the Screw is one of the best examples of this technique in action- we never get an answer to whether the book is supernatural or not. Being on uneven ground can be one of the most potent devices for scary stories. Nonetheless, there are some drawbacks to this.

Cons:

Atonement_(novel)On the flipside, placing the reader on unsure footing can put some readers off. Some people might want clear answers and be dissatisfied if the story is left open-ended. And while it can make some standout characters, it can also make for some truly detestable mcs, like Briony in Atonement. Naturally, unreliable narrators don’t belong in every story or genre- readers might dislike being taken advantage of by a peculiar twist. In fact, if it does feel out of place, it can feel cheap.

Accounting for Different Tastes

As you might be able to tell, I struggled with the cons section. Obviously, this technique isn’t great if misused and I know some people aren’t keen on some specific books that use this technique- but I find it hard to see why anyone would be wholly against it. Personally, I see it as a way of showing how complex people are. It doesn’t help that I’m often overly suspicious and *always* suspect first person narrators of something- after all, didn’t House teach us:

everybody lies house

That’s why I can be dissatisfied with books where I expect there to be an unreliable narrator and they aren’t (which may or may not be a teaser for my next review 😉 ). So while I understand that people don’t necessarily like reading from the perspective of shitty people or might be scared off the genres they’re in, I’m curious to hear why some people might not like this at all and would love to hear some reasons why people hate it.

So I’ll pass the question off to you- do you like or dislike unreliable narrators? And if you’re a fan, who are some of your favourite unreliable narrators? Let me know in the comments!

The Need for Darkness in Books

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Since the dawn of literary criticism, there have always been people complaining that books are too dark. Explorations of suicide and mental health in Jude the Obscure and The Sorrows of Young Werther were condemned. Violence in fairy tales was wiped out for centuries and sanitised into Disney-approved remakes. Even themes of death in Hans Christian Anderson’s work were deemed too hopeless for children by the likes of Bettelheim (“The Struggle for Meaning”. The Classic Fairy Tales). HOWEVER there is one subject I increasingly see bashed in books- and that is the presence of bad parents. Now this is not the first– and probably won’t be the last- time I feel compelled to address this topic. Yet that’s because I continually see people arguing for fewer representations of bad parents. Not for more good parents mind- but to get rid of the quote-un-quote abusive parents “trope”.

This. is. not. cool.

Let me get one thing straight: it’s perfectly fine to have limits on what you, as an individual, are able to stomach. Everyone is entitled to consume whatever media or art they wish. However, one thing I think people should be clear on is that not all stories are pretty. Sometimes stories are harsh. Sometimes they are violent. And sometimes they even involve abuse. This is part of the human experience after all.

Two major misconceptions about a lot of abuse stories that I hear is that they’re somehow rare or that their portrayal is “unrealistic”. And my reaction to that is always *wow*- cos people making this criticism don’t realise how unbelievably douchy they sound when they say that. *Shocker*, but it’s kind of awful to complain that you don’t like reading about abusive parents or any other real life horror in books because (and I’m gonna paraphrase the sort of thing I hear a lot) “it’s not my experience”. Well, guess what? It’s *a lot* of people’s experience. I never talk about this on here, but I actually worked for a youth charity for a while and you wouldn’t believe some of the shocking real life stories I’ve heard. And you don’t have to take my word for it either- not only is there a wealth of personal accounts out there, we can also look at the statistics for things that can cause a bad home life. For instance, the percentage of children suffering some form of abuse in the UK is one in five. That is not a low number by any stretch of the imagination. Add in any other issue a child might encounter at home- bereavement, divorce (approx 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce), economic problems- and you’re looking at a much higher percentage of children experiencing complicated issues. When you think about it this way, it’s no wonder that so many books feature at least one of the above.

cinder and ellaIt’s especially significant to explore such stories, as people who have experienced these situations might find such stories empowering. A great number of novels in this area are very much about discovering bravery and overcoming these obstacles. Stories like Cinderella hold sway for huge numbers of people because they are actually about *empowering* a victim to take control of their life. I actually just watched a fantastic video on how Cinderella frees herself from her abusers- which you can check out here. What can be cool in modern retellings, particularly Cinder and Ella, is the way they explore more modern issues of blended families and complex issues for antagonism towards the heroine. Regardless of the issue, it’s so important to note that there’s an educational element to these stories. We as readers incorporate aspects of that knowledge into our real lives and can learn how to face our biggest fears through books. Darkness, particularly in children’s books, emphasises that meaning is found in life through overcoming difficult circumstances. And as everyone knows, there can be no real catharsis in a story without that.

Alice's_Adventures_in_WonderlandPersonally, I believe that real life friction is a fantastic way to create that sense of tension. Far more so than defeating some faceless, evil entity, there is an educational aspect in characters defeating something more human. Unfortunately, we have to recognise that people are the ones to do evil things. It’s why I am often less drawn to the dehumanised villains (aka the Voldemorts of the world) and far more to the ones with real motivations and human flaws (eg the Dursleys). Sure, I appreciate a good Jaberwocky every now and again, but give me a Red Queen if you want me to be truly terrified.

harry potter and the half blood princeFacing such evils can be hugely character defining. A character working their way through extreme circumstances can give the individual an opportunity to grow and develop. We all know that one of the most satisfying parts of a book can be watching a character evolve. What is brilliant is watching a character be presented with choices and having to find the right path. To draw on Harry Potter again, Harry mirrors both Voldemort and Snape in his miserable background. Yet while they both go on to be baddies- a villain and anti-hero respectively- Harry overcomes his difficult upbringing and becomes the hero that saves the world. Even better, Dudley Dursley gets a redemptive story arc- he too was a product of bad parenting and yet he has to do the arguably more difficult thing of showing remorse for his actions (even if it wasn’t entirely his fault to begin with). In this way, Rowling has given us possibilities of how people can react to negative circumstances. And not only that, she’s given us a clear signpost in the right direction.

the hate u giveThis is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t celebrate positive role models, but that there has to be room in books to explore some of the darker sides of life. I often see that it’s about balance. When you have, for instance, a story as emotionally fraught as, say, The Hate U Give, it makes perfect sense to me that the book has *fantastic* parent role models (not just the parents, but also the uncle!) In part, it’s just great to have that kind of rep in a book, but also I think it speaks to the strength of the author’s intuitive storytelling style. Too often I see books on hard subjects overladen with horror. Sometimes a novel can have no redemptive features or hint of hope- and that can be too much for a reader. So of course I’m not saying “*only darkness* in books please”- instead consider that sometimes there is a need for at least *some* darkness in books.

Phew- I know that wasn’t exactly the most cheerful topic I’ve covered, but I believe it was a necessary one. What do you think? Do you think there’s room to explore dark topics- especially abusive parents- in books? Let me know in the comments!

The Scary State of My TBR

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There’s something terrifying about coming back to blogging after months away. Part of it can just be getting back into the swing of posting regularly; part of it- as much as I like doing it- is feeling the pressure of being present in the blogging community. But there’s one unfortunate and unexpected aspect that I never thought would be an issue- and that’s getting back into reading.

As many of you know, I had a tough time getting in reading while I was away. This led to a *ridiculously* long slump I hadn’t seen coming. Which of course meant that when I took a peek at the books I had to/even just wanted to read, I was almost scared off. Because have you ever looked at your tbr after a slump? It’s a thing of nightmares!

monster book of monsters

And time isn’t exactly my friend. The days aren’t getting any longer and, worst of all, I know full well I won’t be able to fill them with nothing but reading- which doesn’t make me any less intimidated when I look at all the prospective books I have to read…

But of course that’s just it- I don’t actually have to read ALL the books in the world (I know, groundbreaking 😉 yet for a bookworm… it kinda is). Gone are the days when I can cram in a book every two days, gone are the squeeze-in-pages every time I take a break, gone are evenings when all I’ll want to do for fun is read- well at least for now 😉 Point is, it’s not possible for reading to be my entire life- and that’s not going to kill me.

This goes for everything, really. As difficult as it can be to find that frantic pace again, everything has to be done one step at a time. Besides, isn’t it more fun to luxuriate in that feeling of falling back in love with your hobbies? At least that’s what I tell myself.

What can do your head in is thinking that it you have to get a move on. Don’t get me wrong- we all do these things because we love them. We’re not motivated by anything but the pure joy we get out of sharing our love of books, delving into a story until we lose our footing in the real world, finding new friends to share those new universes with… BUT that doesn’t literally mean it has to be your *everything*.

It doesn’t hurt to take a fresh look at how things were before and try and avoid making the same missteps in the future. I feel much more refreshed after a few months abroad and considerably less guilty for all the times I can’t be online/reading/doing something productive. And that is the most important thing of all. I’ve learnt from being away that you can’t be around all the time- it’s simply not possible! And beating yourself up over it doesn’t actually do you any good. So, as cheesy as what I’m about to say is, I’ve learnt an important lesson: sometimes we need to be kinder to ourselves.

Hope my musings help anyone else feeling the pressure.

Let me know in the comments what you think!

Why writers *need* to be readers

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seinfeld gifSo a while back, I was following an indie writer (who shall remain nameless) that said they don’t read, because, and I quote “There are writers and then there are readers”. Now, I’ve mentioned this before, because YIKES that is a dreadful piece of advice, but even more so, it then made sense to me why I’d given said writer a 2 star rating. They’d taken an exciting premise and gone nowhere interesting with it. As for their second book, I couldn’t even get past the first chapter and cba anyway because the premise was so generic and I could figure out the plot twist right away. So it made me want to talk about why it is SO IMPORTANT that writers are readers- because there is no getting round how disastrous the consequences are if you’re not. Here are some reasons why writers need to read (if not ALL THE BOOKS as a lot of us are tempted to, at least A LOT OF THEM):

floundering gifNot reading guarantees authors to make mistakes and be unoriginal. As readers we know where common mistakes crop up and have probably seen them done *all the ways*. This doesn’t mean that we won’t ever get stuck, but at least we have a better idea of how to get out of it.

squeal gifBecause books give you EVEN MORE ideas! If you think reading will make your wellspring of inspiration run dry, think again! It’s actually the exact opposite- the more you read, the more doors in your mind open and the more possibilities you’ll find.

 

boromir deathReaders know what’s on trend and what’s been done to death. Readers know off the top of their head what’s going round at the moment and what’s dipping out of fashion. They don’t have to do extensive research, because they’ve been to a library or bookstore recently- which I guess is a form of research 😉

readingSimilarly, they know how to approach THE DREADED TROPES– readers have lots of preferences and know which ones work for them, which ones to tweak and which ones to steer well clear of. But you can’t know any of this without doing proper research, which, you guessed it, requires reading.

lord of the rings writing gifReaders are more likely to write for themselves– because, as I said, readers have an intuitive sense of what they do and do not like. This will mean they don’t have to write by committee, as I call it, and will actually put together a story that they personally enjoy first and foremost.

choose books2All the techniques y’all. I mean, if you actually want to learn from *the best* writing teachers, there is nothing better than cracking open a wonderful book and figuring out just how an author achieved such brilliance. It’s literally like being able to tap into the minds of all the geniuses that have gone before- and really, what author wouldn’t want to have access to that kind of knowledge?

experimentReading more will give you confidence to experiment! If a writer wants to avoid the “painting by numbers” phenomenon that I’ve seen emerge from people following rules to a T, they should READ MORE, because it will encourage them to try different things. Even better, they might start to innovate on their own and go onto do incredible things. I always love to give advice to dream big when it comes to art- the sky is far from the limit- and if you want to go out into the stratosphere you simply have to start somewhere. Books have more than a little magic to get you off the ground.

What do you think? Do writers need to be readers? Do you have any other reasons to add? Let me know in the comments!

Telling VS Showing – Differences in Style #5

“Show don’t tell” is squawked from pretty much every writerly parapet. I’ve even seen it used as a criticism in descriptive paragraphs or simply when a character thinks “I don’t like pickles” for example- which seems like an odd criticism, cos, believe it or not there are times when stating a fact is a-okay and long-winded ways of saying “I don’t like pickles” are not. Now fortunately there are some people finally waking up and realising that sometimes you need to tell and sometimes you need to show (hello Jenna Moreci). Yet since it’s such a hot topic, I thought it would be fun to address for my style series!

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Showing vs Telling Defined

Well, I thought about all the ways I could explain it and realised I could demonstrate both techniques in just two sentences from one of my favourite authors, Laini Taylor:

“Zuzana arched an eyebrow. She was a master of the eyebrow arch, and Karou envied her for it.”

The first sentence is showing, the latter is telling. What’s magnificent about this is you have a visual image to latch onto and at the same time get an emotional response. It also demonstrates a fantastic use of contrast from one sentence to the next. But if you want an even better example of showing, you’ll have to read on…

Showing Pros and Cons

Pros: showing can create some beautiful, descriptive language. It’s a fantastic method to transport the reader, allows for some emotional insight for the reader and creates tangible relationships within the story. Without any showing, the story quickly becomes very flat. With it, writing comes alive. I mean, again, look at Taylor’s description of Prague:

daughter of smoke and bone“Fairy-tale city. From the air, red rooftops hug a kink in a dark river, and by night the forested hills appear as spans of black nothing against the dazzle of the lit castle, the spiking Gothic towers, the domes great and small. The river captures all the lights and teases them out, long and wavering, and the side-slashing rain blurs it all to a dream”

Cons: still, it can be unnecessary. I’m pretty sure we’ve all read those melodramatic passages that were wayyy OTT! One piece of advice when it comes to any art form is know when to stop. I know how tempting it can be to add that one last brushstroke but step away from the canvass a moment, leave it to dry, and maybe consider you might be done.

Telling Pros and Cons

Pros: It can be used to create a very strong narrative voice and can be an interesting technique for authorial intrusion- but since this is such a contentious issue, I’ve decided to show you some classic examples:

northanger abbeyAusten: “The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”- this is used for humour at the end of Northanger Abbey  and shows self-awareness of the novel’s construct, poking fun at the fact that you can expect a happy ending and actually breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader this.

jane eyreCharlotte Bronte: “Reader I married him”- I mean, do I even have to tell you why this is good? It’s a statement as romantic and striking as “I love you”- there’s no need to leave it up to ambiguity, especially after all the torment that has gone before.

 

eastofedenSteinbeck: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. . . . And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”- Steinbeck, in my opinion, is one of the masters of authorial intrusion. This moment is the introduction of his villain Cathy in East of Eden and provides a brilliantly stark moment of characterisation and ruminates over what it means. The author’s own struggle to find common ground with this character and actually by confessing this confusion shows the reader just how bad she is.

And there are many more reasons to use telling, such as dropping a *bombshell* and even introducing a moral. To my mind, the absolutism of the rule “show don’t tell” is pretty ludicrous when you think how well this technique can be employed. That said, there are obvious reasons to curb this impulse at times.

Cons: Obviously this can get dull if overused. And if you’re using it for shock value, *newsflash*, this will lose its power very quickly. There’s a reason it should be used sparingly.

Accounting for Differences in Taste

As always I want to draw attention to the fact there are lots of styles and techniques. Like I said earlier, the most important thing is to know when to stop, because, there are times when any technique can be too much. But the reason why I was eager to do this post is that, frankly, whenever I see one of these blanket rules, it grates on me a little. Especially if there’s plenty of evidence that this can work.

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence

My only preference for this is “everything in moderation”- but I wonder, what do you think? Are you a stickler for the “show don’t tell” rule? Or do you prefer telling? Let me know in the comments!